Magazine article The Christian Century

Syrian Christians Keep Uneasy Affiance with Assad

Magazine article The Christian Century

Syrian Christians Keep Uneasy Affiance with Assad

Article excerpt

Hani Sarhan is a Christian who says none of his relatives works for Bashar Assad's regime or has anything to do with it. "But what we heard from [the protesters] at the beginning of this revolution--'Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin'--started us thinking about the real aim of this revolution," he said. "So from this point of view, fearing for my life, I declared my support for President Assad."

Muslims dominate this nation of 22 million people, but Christians can be found at all levels of Syrian government, business and military. The 2 million Christians in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria trace their roots to ancient communities that survived under many rulers, even as Christian enclaves withered in other Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia.

The rebellion of hundreds of thousands of Muslims against Assad that began in March 2011 has not seen Christians abandon their support for the Alawites, the Muslim sect to which Assad belongs and that has controlled Syria for decades.

Christians have largely remained quiet as Assad's forces pummeled rebel cities and towns with artillery, killing close to 10,000 people, according to the United Nations. Many of Syria's Christians continue to stand by the regime not out of support for Assad but out of fear of civil war if rebels gain strength, or worse, if they win and install an Islamist government that's hostile to religious minorities.

Qatana, a town 20 miles southwest of Damascus, is home to a Christian community of several hundred families. Protests here against the Assad regime have prompted military incursions and clashes between renegade soldiers and the regular army. At checkpoints surrounding the town, some Christians chat with Alawite security officers. Others offer water and whiskey.

Christians firmly believe that the Alawite regime will keep them safe. With the town's two churches located in Sunni Muslim neighborhoods, for months many families were too fearful to attend services, Christians here said. But a teacher at a Christian school said life is better now than before.

"The crisis is almost over," she said, asking that her name be withheld because she feared retribution. "Our church was full on Easter Sunday; last year it was practically empty. We were allowed to parade around the town, when last year we could only go in the street outside the church."

Yet Christian communities elsewhere have seen trouble. A church in Homs, Um al-Zennar, was badly damaged during the military's monthlong shelling of the city in February. …

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